Kanye West's set on Sunday, the last night of Governors Ball, began with black-and-white video footage of three lunging, feral dogs, obscured almost entirely by shadow. That turned out to be a good indication of what was to follow: a performance that was all snarl and sinew, ruthlessly lean, defiantly abrasive and relentlessly dark. West's performance came just nine days before the release of his sixth album, “Yeezus,” a record about which much has been written, but very little has been heard. In an age of early album leaks and all-fronts media assaults, that's saying something, and it speaks to the degree of importance West places on controlling his music's presentation. His audience will hear his new songs when he wants them to hear them, and in the setting in which he wants them to be heard.
He led with two of them on Sunday, "Black Skinhead" and "New Slaves," the same two he played on “Saturday Night Live” last month. They are scorched, angry husks of songs, built on martial percussion and razorblade synth lines with lyrics that cut deep into race and wealth and class in America. They call to mind nothing so much as the proto-industrial music of the early '90s, summoning both the sickening grind of Nine Inch Nails and the fangs-bared ferocity of early Ministry. They are bold and anti-commercial, and both burrow down deep into the darkness in the hearts of man. West performed them in front of arresting imagery: among them, three people in black KKK hoods, and a chilling close-up of West's eyes with the pupils blanked-out.
Three other new songs were just as severe. One of them was shot through with streaks of red-orange synth, puncturing the center of the song, slicing through the center of the bare backbeat. And another, rumored to be called "I Am A God," is fiercer still, jet-engine synths roaring queasily up the center, recalling the nastier moments of the late '70s electro-punk group Suicide. "I am a God," West seethed, "Hurry up with my damn massage/ Hurry up with my damn ménage." Against the grim, grinding synths, he didn't sound boastful so much as disgusted, a man staring at the spoils of his power and feeling nothing but revulsion.
That it was followed immediately by "Jesus Walks," a desperate cry for salvation, felt like a sly study in contrasts. The whole show developed like a narrative. West shunned the sunnier corners of his catalog in favor of older songs that complemented the newer material's sonics and themes. "Way Too Cold" felt even icier than usual, its electro backdrop queasy and forbidding. "Flashing Lights" was cold and clammy, building to a panicked finale. "This is usually the part of the night where I start complaining," West said late in the show. He didn't though: instead, he expressed gratefulness before putting into words what the songs had made clear: "When I listen to the radio, that ain't where I wanna be no more," he said. It was a bold statement, but it also felt redundant. The ruthlessness of West's new music, his willingness to be abrasive and confrontational, will not sit comfortably in the Top 40; it is, rather, the stuff of art.
The day's earlier performers shared West's minimalism to varying degrees. The xx played whispery R&B that felt like a long conversation between two lovers in the dead of night. Their music is stunning in its spareness – just a few cables of guitar, the hushed voices of Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft, and miles of empty space. That ended up being alarmingly effective: on "Crystallized," the guitars pricked like tiny pins, a suggestion of sound more than distinct notes. That was the case for much of the music of Deerhunter as well. The Atlanta group writes songs that feel like mirages, mesmeric and filmy. "Neon Junkyard" lurched and wobbled, front man Bradford Cox's voice wandering through woozy guitars. There was something alluringly alien about their music, its odd angles and dreamlike haze feeling distinctly and proudly at odds with the festival's more boisterous fare.
Portugal. The Man operated somewhere between the two extremes. The group weds starry-eyed harmonies to classic rock chug, emerging with something not dissimilar to early T. Rex. Like Marc Bolan, front man John Gourley sings with a kind of celestial certainty, believing himself cosmically appointed to great things. On "Evil Friends," he sang, "The stars got nothing on me/ The sun's got nothing on me" in a trembling falsetto as guitars lapped gently behind him. "So American" was bolder; a kind of double-time update to David Bowie's "Five Years," Gourley's voice craning and diving over a ghost choir chorus.
Grizzly Bear typically have a similar fondness for the beatific, but they were stern and lean and sturdy on Sunday, more muscle than fat. "Sleeping Ute" built to a series of thunderous crescendos, piano cascading down the center, percussion exploding in quick flashes. As always, the group's great strength was in its singing. Ed Droste drew out words until they felt like long balloons of sound, floating upward between the lattice of guitars.
Whatever mistiness Grizzly Bear had abandoned was absorbed by the British group Foals. Their songs pitch and groan, more texture than solid shape. "Providence" pulsed and thrashed, guitars scrambling nervously forward like spiders across glass before it finally erupted in a storm of sound. The Vaccines, from London, were more direct. Though their music can, at times, feel formulaic, their best songs mine the same vein of nervous teenage lust and frustration as The Violent Femmes. "If You Wanna" hurtled forward blindly, a clammy panic attack of a song while "Norgaard," a song about nursing a crush on a Danish supermodel, strutted with false confidence.
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